HK By-election Turns Into Referendum, Beijing Loses

The depth of unpopularity of Hong Kong’s government, confirmed by a Feb. 28 by- election result, has shown once again that threats and bluster from Beijing do not work. It has also raised the once-unlikely prospect that one of the least unpopular ministers, Financial Secretary John Tsang, could become a candidate for Chief Executive in succession to the widely despised Leung Chun-ying whose term expires next year.

Most alarming for the government and Beijing was that the newly-formed Hong Kong Indigenous party won 15.4 percent of the vote in the by-election for one of the seats in a constituency in the New Territories. Its candidate was a 24-year old student, Edward Leung Tin-kai, who has been charged in connection with rioting in Mongkok three weeks ago. Thus a significant portion of the electorate supported him despite constant attacks on him as violent and unpatriotic extremist. He polled almost 30 percent in public housing estates, indicating an even deeper measure of dislike for the government among lower-income groups.

The Indigenous group is a radical descendant from the Occupy movement of 2014. It consists mainly of young people who believed the older, established pro-democracy groups have failed to deliver. But it also feeds on local antagonism towards the varied aspects of “mainlandization” which are evident to all ages and classes.

The government had been hoping, even expecting, that the spectacle of the riots would have provoked a backlash and support for its ally the Beijing-backed Democratic Alliance (DAB). In the event the DAB received only 34.8 percent of the vote, leaving it in second place to the mainstream pro-democracy Civic Party. Minor local candidates picked up 11 percent. While voters may not have supported the agenda of the Indigenous, which calls for a quasi-independent status for Hong Kong, they were fed up enough to vote for what the government and the press has characterized as this “extremist and violent” group.

The Civic Party itself, though dominated by lawyers, is now also accused by Beijing’s many acolytes in the English as well as Chinese media of being extremist. Pan-democrats in the legislature have been holding up passage of bills including a new Copyright law which contains clauses vigorously opposed by many in the IT sector. However, the government remains unwilling to consider compromise amendments and itself is responsible for the lack of legislative progress by insisting that controversial bills be passed un-amended before proceeding with less controversial ones.

What the by-election says about Hong Kong elections for the full the Legislative Council due in September is hard to guess. In theory the unpopularity of the government in general and Leung in particular should result in gains for anti-government candidates. But Hong Kong’s unusual voting system, with multi-member constituencies and many candidates, enables small parties to flourish while also fragmenting the pro-democracy vote. The main pro-democracy parties, the Democratic and Civic Parties, mostly cooperate but the small ones do not.

The by-election was relatively straightforward compared with a general election as only one seat was at stake. The Civic Party had feared that it could lose because of the intervention of the Indigenous. In the event it seems to have attracted enough votes to win because a loss to the DAB would have meant that the government would have had a sufficient majority in the legislature to change procedures and bulldoze through legislation.

The result was also a rebuff to Financial Secretary John Tsang’s budget the previous week. The government had clearly hoped that tax cuts of HK$38 billion would buy votes. But the budget’s appeal was mostly to middle income earners, not the mostly lower paid public housing tenants. Nonetheless, Tsang is emerging as a potential political contender. His tax-cutting budget was clearly aimed at attracting middle class support while his policy of continuing to stack up reserves would have appealed to Beijing and local business groups terrified of spending taxpayers money on the public rather than hoarding it for grandiose infrastructure projects of minimal economic value.

Tsang, whose had previously shown some sympathy for localist sentiments, was also less virulent in his remarks about the Mongkok riots. Although he used his budget speech to make political statements about the riot and about the non-cooperation policy of pro-democracy legislators, he did so in relatively measured terms which suggested more sorrow than anger. He even indicated that there was a need to consider the reasons for deep divides within society. That is not the authoritarian attitude of the Communist party and its local business backers.

Tsang’s nine years as financial secretary have seen zero fiscal reforms even though the government admits these are needed. But he is viewed as more open, less antagonistic than most of C.Y. Leung’s ministers. His greying moustache and somewhat dishevelled appearance are also a contrast to the standard issue apparatchik. But whether Beijing trusts a rather atypical product of the Hong Kong civil service, and one who has never been suspected of Communist party sympathy let alone membership, is another question.